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This post was contributed by J. (Tales from the Hood

I was pleased when Linda put up her latest post. There’s a lot of opinion in the blogosphere lately about what white people need to understand or not understand, helping us get in touch with our “privilege”, etc. A lot of it is really excellent.

Something that I have struggled with personally, and have seen my white male demographic comrades also struggle with, though, is: What, then, are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to act? I don’t feel privileged, but okay—I still am. I get it. Privilege acknowledgedCheck. But now what?

In his excellent piece Douchebag: The white racial slur we’ve all been waiting for, Michael Mark Cohen notes that “White racial slurs are not common in our colorblind age because they don’t work on people who posses white privilege. When they do work, like “redneck” or “cracker,” it’s a matter of class politics…. Rich white men enjoy the invisible power of being just people. Normal, basic Humanity. Everyone else gets some version of discrimination.”

Now, I don’t want to be a “douchebag”— who would? But somehow, calling taxation of the rich “the douchebag tax” rather than “class warefare”, seems, well, academic and not very important in the grand scheme of things. That’ll win me a few smiles of affirmation in the coffee room, but doesn’t give me much guidance for getting through the day in a racially diverse neighborhood or ideas on how to support change to happen.

So for posterity, for those basically decent white guys who “get it” but are unsure how to act when the conversation around them heats up, here are the rules I try to live by:

This is not about you. If you find yourself entering discussions with a lengthy expose of where you grew up, what your socioeconomic status was, whether your upbringing somehow set you on a path for racism or not-racism… yeah, you may want to reconsider your approach. Process your own issues as needed, but don’t bring them into this conversation. Why? Because this conversation is specifically about the rights and needs of other people.

No one is immune. It doesn’t matter where your origins lie, generations back; it doesn’t matter that your great, great grandfather was or wasn’t a plantation owner. It doesn’t matter if all of your friends are of another race/culture/ethnicity. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an interracial or cross-cultural relationship. No one is immune from making mistakes, not even you. Don’t try to pretend otherwise. If you make a mistake — maybe you use an offensive term or fall back on a convenient stereotype — acknowledge it, give a sincere apology, and move on.

No one’s holding your responsible for the sins of others. Don’t get all defensive, like, “I never hit/choked/shot/raped/owned any black people… so back off!” Fine, you probably didn’t, but that’s not the point, and in the vast majority of cases you’re not being personally accused of those things. The important thing is to acknowledge that those awful things did and still do happen, and then take steps to change that. Too often we use our lack of specific personal culpability as a reason to disengage from the issues of race inequality overall.

[Editor’s note from Linda: The larger issue here is “structural racism,” or “systemic racism.” Learn about what that means, don’t take it personally, and use your vote, voice and behavior to help remove/un-do/change it. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece to get a really deep understanding of how structural racism has affected black people in the US over the years and continues today.]

No token gestures. Don’t collect friends of other colors. Don’t go all over-the-top with moral indignation on your Facebook page. No blasting Salt ‘n’ Pepper while cruising in your Prius. No ostentatious displays of confessing your privilege. Just be normal: Look people in the eye when you speak to them. If you’re friends with people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, express support and solidarity if it’s appropriate to do so, but don’t go all earnest emo. Join protests — definitely — solidarity is critical in order to move these issues forward and achieve structural changes. But don’t make it about you and your needs. Understand that your vote on local issues may accomplish much more than your signboard. And, no — don’t ever wear an “I Am Trayvon” T-shirt.

Don’t use somebody else’s asshattery to justify your asshattery. Newsflash: Literally every community on the planet has members who are jerks. Just because there was that one time, back in 1987 when some black guy was a jerk to you, doesn’t give you carte blance to cling to stereotypes or act like a jerk toward others. This is just basic.

Understand that people get emotional. Some people go ballistic just at Starbucks. Or Walmart. Can you even imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of literally generations of racial discrimination? It should surprise no one that tempers flare, voices get loud, and pronouncements become extreme.  Dude, just let people express themselves. Not everyone is a professional orator. Don’t try to deflate or invalidate it. Don’t feel as if you have to nit-pick or respond to everything. Which leads to…

Know when to shut up.

Don’t play the victim. You know how everyone thinks we can’t dance or “don’t have rhythm”? Yeah, just let it go.

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Sometimes a work trip accidentally has a theme, and my recent trip to Cape Town was one of those. I arrived on Thursday, December 5th to the news that Mandela had passed away. My cab driver was on the phone, telling someone that Friday would be a holiday. He glanced back at me and asked “Do you know who Nelson Mandela is? He’s passed.” I turned on the television when I got to my hotel and watched for a few hours, but it was already after midnight and so there was not a lot of new content.

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 7.56.17 AMThe following day I went with a small group to an ecumenical ceremony in the square, but it didn’t feel yet like the news had really hit. I had no idea how to interpret the crowd, the messages, the speakers, the politics. As the news traveled and people began writing about Mandela and his life, I dipped in here and there. The typical conversations happened. Was Mandela and his life going to be sanitized by the mainstream media for political purposes? It was good to see people attempting to show the full man, with all his complexities. It was striking to remember that such a short time ago apartheid was alive and well, and to really think about that, I mean really really think about it, and to be reminded yet again of the fact that social change is not easy, clean, or straightforward. It’s most certainly not a technical problem waiting to be solved with a new device or invention, though clearly international and national political pressure play a huge role.

Mandela and his life became an underlying base for the conference, as I’m sure was true for much of what was happening around the world. Whether he was directly mentioned or not, his life’s work was present. I participated in sessions on ICTs and open development, ICTs and children, ICTs and raising critical consciousness. In all of them, the issues of equity and power came up. How can development processes be more open and is there a role for ICTs there? What world do we want to see in the future? How do we get there? How do we include children and youth so that they are not marginalized? How can we take a critical approach to ourselves and our agendas in development and in ICT4D? Can ICTs play a role in helping people to change existing power structures, achieve more equity and equality, and transform our societies? All these sessions were planned before anyone knew of Mandela’s passing, but talking about issues in light of the recent news and the renewed presence of him and his life made them feel more real.

Fast forward to the flights home. My first flight was the long one, from Cape Town to Amsterdam. My seat mates were two inexperienced flyers in their late 30s or so. They didn’t know where to put their bags or that they could not get up to go to the bathroom while the seatbelt sign was on and the flight was taking off. They were tattooed and looked a little rough around the edges. One of them carried a small, stuffed cheetah and wore hot pink pumps. I fell fast asleep the minute we took off and woke up an hour before we landed. The woman with the pink pumps started a conversation. Almost immediately she told me that she and her friend were returning from 2 months in rehab. They were both struggling with addictions to alcohol and sex, she told me. She was originally from Croatia and had lived in Amsterdam for years. She had recently relapsed and that’s why she went into treatment. She was returning to a safe house now, and it was her daughter’s 10th birthday. She was feeling positive about her life, yet sad that she would spend her daughter’s birthday in a safe house. She had recently revealed her addiction to her boss and received a negative and disempowering response. She was trying to be strong and accept that she was a recovering addict, learning to not feel ashamed, and working on being proud of the fact that she was moving forward. I was struck by her vulnerability and sweetness and left wondering how she would fare in a world where addiction and mental illness are so buried and stigmatized.

I got on my last flight and checked my Facebook while waiting to take off. My friend Subir had posted that two Supreme Court judges had overruled the Delhi high court’s decision and upheld the constitutionality of Section 377 –  essentially ruling that homosexuality is a crime and throwing India back into the dark ages.

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My seatmate on this flight started up a conversation and I mentioned the India decision. I also told him about some of the different work that I do and the various hats I wear, including my involvement as a board member with ICAAD, the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination. ICAAD’s work is fascinating because they look at discrimination that is embedded into law, and the link between structural and legal discrimination and racial, gender, religious and social discrimination, violence, and hate crimes including those against religious minorities, immigrants, women, the LGBT community, and people of color.

As we talked, I learned that my seat mate’s mother had been a Holocaust survivor and that he was traveling to the US to attend an event in his mother’s honor. Her father survived a concentration camp, and she had been hidden and sheltered by different families for many years until the two were finally reunited and moved to the US.  She spent years dealing with the psychological impacts of the experience, but now works to help children and youth understand and deal with bigotry and hate, to identify it around them even when it’s not directly aimed at them, and to find ways to stop it. She highlights that it can manifest itself in seemingly small ways, like bullying at school.

This accidental theme of discrimination, violence and hate, whether based on race, poverty, addiction, religious beliefs or sexual orientation was so alive for me this week. I met and learned more about brave individuals and the work of organizations who stand up in the face of injustice to take action at both the personal and the institutional level, raising critical consciousness to push for the changes that the world needs.

Despite our ‘advanced’ societies, our awareness of history, our facts, our data, our evidence, our literary genius, our ICTs, our innovations, we have very far to go, as I was reminded multiple times. But strong and caring individuals, organized communities, and political will can make a dent in structural discrimination and contribute to a more human society. More of us, self included, need to re-focus and work harder toward this end.

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